Jim Broadbent, now 67, is mildly chuffed to find that time, finally, is on his side. He’s not the type of man to claim a last laugh, but over breakfast in central London, he reflects candidly on a career spent with his name below the title.
“As a young actor, I was advised to bide my time. Back then, there weren’t good roles for someone like me. There were handsome leading men and character actors for smaller, supporting roles. But I was told to hang in there, and it was good advice. We’re all character actors now,” he smiles. “Even a handsome man is a character actor at my age.”
“Hanging in there” barely describes Broadbent’s decorated filmography. He won a Bafta for best supporting actor in Moulin Rouge! in 2002, the Academy Award and Golden Globe for best supporting actor in Iris the same year, as well as an Emmy, Golden Globe and TV Bafta for his television work in Longford and The Street.
He’s worked with Mike Leigh (Life is Sweet, Another Year) and Woody Allen (Bullets over Broadway). He was terrific with Lindsay Duncan in Le Week-end and now, with a gratifyingly starry supporting cast (Michelle Dockery, Charlotte Rampling, Emily Mortimer), he takes the lead in an adaptation of Julian Barnes’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Sense of an Ending (in cinemas Friday 14 April).
Barnes and Broadbent are made for each other; it’s hard to imagine an actor who could better embody the novel’s interleaving of hope and regret. Broadbent plays Tony Webster, a man in his 70s looking back at his student days and, in an age of fast-crack dialogue and faster editing, director Ritesh Batra holds each note. On the travelled landscape of Broadbent’s face, old excitements fade and flare, matching the subtle shifts of the narrative.
If the screenplay offers a sense of redemption that was with held from the novel (purists might call this the point of the story), Broadbent, who loved the book, is unconcerned. “Books and films are different beasts – you need to look at them in different ways – but as soon as I read the novel, I could imagine myself playing Tony.
“I enjoyed the imagining of it, thinking what I might do with the character. I’m interested in that whole notion of what is history, how much we misremember – on a human level. But what really appealed to me is how Tony behaves like a silly teenager. I like that recognition that we don’t really mature in a profound way. We get older, and more sophisticated, and a bit cleverer, but certainly boys, and men, are as childish and basic as we ever were.”
Behind owlish specs, Broadbent’s large blue eyes are trusting, unfiltered. It occurs that what makes him so compelling on screen, so un-actorish in the flesh, is a capacity for plain truth. His parents, both artists, were liberal pacifists who ran a loose kind of commune in Lincolnshire, and Broadbent was educated by Quakers – “Lovely people,” he recalls, “very undogmatic and accepting.” Spared the usual parental hand-wringing at his choice of profession, he did a stint at art school, before switching to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.
“I went from playing the hero’s best friend to the dad and grandad without the romantic lead interlude,” he says, reflecting on a career that has seldom seen him out of work. “The system has changed now, there are more varied roles, partly because there’s so much more television and so much less theatre. So I sort of got a head start by doing lots of different things and not being associated with one particular thing at an early age. When the industry moved more into character roles, I was already there.”
Have the demographics of an ageing population, the power of the grey pound, opened up more parts for older actors? “I’m not sure,” he ponders. “The Magnificent Hotel in India, or whatever it’s called [The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel], was a big success, and there are others – Le Week-end, I suppose, 45 Years, The Lady in the Van – but you get the paper and 13 new films are being reviewed every week. If you’re lucky, two or three of those would appeal to the older generation.
“Actually, there are far fewer parts for older people, so I’m now part of a minority for the first time. That’s all right because I’m choosy anyway, but sometimes I’ll watch a TV programme, say Peaky Blinders, and I think ‘Oh, this is really good. I’d love to be in it.’ And then think, ‘Hang on, there’s nobody of my age in it. What would I play?’”
Hollywood was never a great lure. “Occasionally I’ve been asked to do American roles, and once or twice I have, but I don’t understand Americans. I don’t have any real feeling for American culture. I do have it with British culture. I understand what makes us tick. To a degree.”
Any lingering “what ifs” were put to rest when Broadbent won the Oscar, aged 52. “It was mainly a relief. Because I didn’t have to waste time thinking, ‘Why didn’t they pick me?’ An Oscar clears the deck of envy and resentment. You think ‘Well, I’ve got that. I can relax now.’”
That same year, however, he declined the offer of an OBE. “First you’re awardable, then you’re establishment,” he says. “I love the idea of actors being rogues and vagabonds picking at the weaknesses of the powerful.”
A veteran of 1970s agitprop and 80s fringe theatre (he looks back warmly on his days as one half of the National Theatre of Brent), Broadbent is sorry for millennial actors who are denied grants and forced to chase the money to pay their sky-high rents.
“We’ve been very lucky in our generation – peace, home-owning, pensions – all these things that youngsters now aren’t going to have. But there’s a political energy now, an anger, that hasn’t been evident for a long time. Maybe all this is part of something breaking – a system that has to break to come back stronger.”
The master of the slow burn seems immensely cheered at the prospect of a blaze.
“More hopeful than optimistic,” he qualifies. “I hope it happens in my lifetime. Because it’s the only time I’ve got.”